Sunday, March 20, 2016

When Lean Fails: The Common Causes

Many companies today are jumping on the lean bandwagon and expecting huge cost reductions as a result.  Unfortunately, many of these companies will never see the type of improvements they expect from lean, and their leaders will likely become disappointed and frustrated, and eventually abandon the effort.
There are a number of reasons companies fail with lean.  What I present here are the causes I’ve seen over the years that are the most destructive and the most difficult to resolve.  It is important to understand these causes and work to prevent or address them early in the process in order to initiate the type of transformation that will lead to a more competitive and stronger organization in the long run.
1.       Underestimating the Transformation
Most leaders tend to underestimate the level of transformation required to create a lean thinking culture within the organization.  Lean is not something you “implement” or use when convenient.  In virtually all cases, it involves a dramatic shift in the culture to drive a new way of thinking and approaching work.  As such, it requires transformation in the systems for leadership, training and development, recruiting and hiring, promotions, and others before one can expect to see results that have any chance of being sustainable.
2.       Delegating the Effort
One of the major differences between lean and improvement methodologies like six-sigma is that it requires the involvement of the organization’s leaders to be successful.  As noted above, lean requires a fairly significant transformation in order to be successful and this can only be done by those at the top because they are the people who are in the position to make it happen.
3.       Humility
Arrogance is one of the biggest killers of a lean culture.  Built on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, lean is about continual learning.  I have seen many organizations over the years that had started well with the effort but, after a few early successes, became overly confident and killed the transformation.  The saying that the man who is too big to learn will get no bigger applies to organizations as well as individuals. 

The most effective leaders I have worked with are those who accept responsibility for the organization’s problems and realize that it is they who need to change in order for the organization to change.
4.       Patience
The extent of change in systems and behaviors required to be successful with lean takes time to achieve.  Although there will undoubtedly be early successes, the ability to sustain the successes and drive others will not happen without continual effort to shift thinking.  Especially when a crisis occurs, people will go back to their comfort zone, which most likely involves how they behaved before learning about lean.

The key is to never let up by continuing to reflect and drive change through the conversations and actions that occur every day.
5.       Consistency
Lean requires clear alignment from the organization’s purpose to the work performed by people every day.  In order to achieve and maintain this alignment, the organization must have a clear and constant purpose that is motivating and well understood by everyone.  Doing this well requires a significant amount of effort by the leadership team – especially during bad times when many organizations find it easier to abandon the purpose in order to maintain profits and short-term goals.

Leaders must be enlightened enough to understand that, although success will not come easy, it is possible to transform the company into a stronger and more successful organization.  Looking out for the causes of failure can save a lot of frustration early in the process and greatly improve the chances for success.